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Blues Banjo

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  • Charles Bihun
    A while back in the thread on Blues Roots, someone seemed to imply that the thought of the banjo being used in country blues, specifically John Lee Hooker s
    Message 1 of 5 , Jul 31, 2009
      A while back in the thread on "Blues Roots," someone seemed to imply that the thought of the banjo being used in country blues, specifically John Lee Hooker's style, is laughable.  This statement did not ring true.  At the least, I know that Pete Seeger in his book, "How to Play the Five String Banjo," first published in 1948, addresses playing the blues on the five string.

      Pete is more of a renovator than an innovator.  While the "bump-ditty" style of playing one of the first four string by picking it up and following it with a down stroke brush across several strings and a thumb pluck on the fifth is routinely referred to as the "Pete Seeger Style," he did not invent it.  In 1948 he labeled this the "basic strum," but recently he has stated that it is just one of a few dozen that he came across while doing filed recording and research.  From the foregoing, it is probable that he had come across some banjoist playing the blues.

      Pursuing this, it took me about five minutes of searching to come up with two black blues musicians who recorded country blues (as ragtime and other styles) in the late '20s, i.e., Gus Cannon of the Jug Stompers and Papa Charlie Jackson.  While a lot of Cannon's recording are not really blues, his "Springdale Blues" is, as is Jackson's "Good Doing Papa Blues."  

      Avoiding continuing the argument as to whether or not the country bluesmen were in a unique stream following from black folk music or a degenerate branch of classic urban blues, it can not be said that the banjo was not used for blues; today there are many banjoists playing blues on the five string.  As these two recorded in the late '20s along with other bluesmen, it can be argued that no one used the banjo in 1900 to play blues, but it also can be argued that it may have. 

      ChuckB       




      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • Patrice Champarou
      ... From: Charles Bihun To: Sent: Friday, July 31, 2009 10:27 PM Subject: [RedHotJazz] Blues Banjo A
      Message 2 of 5 , Jul 31, 2009
        ----- Original Message -----
        From: "Charles Bihun" <csintala79@...>
        To: <RedHotJazz@yahoogroups.com>
        Sent: Friday, July 31, 2009 10:27 PM
        Subject: [RedHotJazz] Blues Banjo


        A while back in the thread on "Blues Roots," someone seemed to imply that
        the thought of the banjo being used in country blues, specifically John Lee
        Hooker's style, is laughable. This statement did not ring true. At the
        least, I know that Pete Seeger in his book, "How to Play the Five String
        Banjo," first published in 1948, addresses playing the blues on the five
        string.

        Pete is more of a renovator than an innovator. While the "bump-ditty" style
        of playing one of the first four string by picking it up and following it
        with a down stroke brush across several strings and a thumb pluck on the
        fifth is routinely referred to as the "Pete Seeger Style," he did not invent
        it. In 1948 he labeled this the "basic strum," but recently he has stated
        that it is just one of a few dozen that he came across while doing filed
        recording and research. From the foregoing, it is probable that he had come
        across some banjoist playing the blues.

        Pursuing this, it took me about five minutes of searching to come up with
        two black blues musicians who recorded country blues (as ragtime and other
        styles) in the late '20s, i.e., Gus Cannon of the Jug Stompers and Papa
        Charlie Jackson. While a lot of Cannon's recording are not really blues, his
        "Springdale Blues" is, as is Jackson's "Good Doing Papa Blues."

        Avoiding continuing the argument as to whether or not the country bluesmen
        were in a unique stream following from black folk music or a degenerate
        branch of classic urban blues, it can not be said that the banjo was not
        used for blues; today there are many banjoists playing blues on the five
        string. As these two recorded in the late '20s along with other bluesmen, it
        can be argued that no one used the banjo in 1900 to play blues, but it also
        can be argued that it may have.

        ChuckB

        I think this can be a very interesting thread, if members do not object that
        is is not really related to hot jazz - although Papa Charlie Jackson did
        play with jazz bands, and even recorded two takes of Salty Dog with Freddie
        Keppard's Jazz Cardinals in 1926.
        But Jackson used a 6-string banjo, and his technique was thoroughly
        comparable to guitar techniques. Most of his tunes were harmonically more
        complex than the common 12-bar blues, with a typical ragtime flavor, to the
        point that some refuse to consider him as a blues singer... I won't argue
        about this again, I am not interested in generalizations or chapels, but I
        think it is very interesting to note that he accompanied the first "plain"
        blues he recorded... with a guitar! (for the anecdote, with the third string
        tuned up one octave, like Milas Pruitt did while backing Lottie Beaman)

        Being a reasonably old (I mean, since 1965) Pete Seeger fan as well, I
        devoted him a two-hour online show for his 90th birthday this year, and I
        confess it was not easy to find a significant number of blues in his huge
        repertoire... but I did manage. Being also responsible for laughing at the
        idea of Hooker's style played on a banjo, I might add that the instruments
        has some rigidity which makes it hard to achieve the ambiguous notes, bends
        or slide effects so easily done on a guitar; which Seeger compensated by
        sometimes using a fretless banjo, reportedly offered him by Frank Proffit,
        the writer of Tom Dooley, but this type of instrument seemed to be actually
        originating from Appalachian white music. Another of my favorites, white
        "country" banjoist, Dock Boggs, a singer from Norton, Virginia who started
        recording in 1927, provided some very interesting examples of 8-bar blues
        (that is, no repetition of the first line) and had a very uncommon style,
        not frailing the strings but picking them upwards, with much emphasis on
        single-note melodies clearly detached from the picking pattern, and often
        following his voice. Apart from being very impressed by the records of Sara
        Martin, he had spent a lot of time watching black musicians in a nearby
        town, particularly the perfectly unknown "Go Lightnin'". I read some notes
        which stated that after his re-discovery in the 60's, he had told
        Mississippi John Hurt that he was sorry not to have learnt guitar, which he
        thought would have better suited his needs - but I do not know if this
        polite compliment should be taken seriously.

        Anyway, without taking the risk of offending people who insist that the
        banjo is a blues instrument, it could be honestly said that Charlie Jackson
        and Gus Cannon are exceptions among the whole of pre-war recorded blues.
        From what I previously wrote one might guess I doubt it ever was, from a
        traditional point of view, and another example could be virtuoso "Uncle"
        Dave Macon, who was on record as early as 1923, and also chose to take up a
        guitar while performing such songs as "Hesitation Blues", the rest of his
        vast repertoire being, I think, mostly alien to blues.

        I am interested in learning more about these aspects of the banjo in a more
        urban, and jazz-related context.

        Patrice
      • Patrice Champarou
        ... I am afraid there is some confusion, since as far as I know Charlie Jackson never recorded that number. It is the title of an unissued recording by Isaiah
        Message 3 of 5 , Jul 31, 2009
          Post-scriptum :

          > While a lot of Cannon's recording are not really blues, his "Springdale
          > Blues"
          > is, as is Jackson's "Good Doing Papa Blues."

          I am afraid there is some confusion, since as far as I know Charlie Jackson
          never recorded that number. It is the title of an unissued recording by
          Isaiah Nettles a.k.a. the Mississippi Moaner, which - obviously - no-one has
          heard.

          The songs performed by Papa Charlie on guitar are the following :
          Texas blues (1925)
          Jackson's Blues (1926)
          Up The Way Bound (1926)
          but to be honest, according to B&GR there was every time another take which
          he accompanied on his usual 6-string banjo. Which I'll enjoy checking
          tomorrow.

          P.
        • Charles Bihun
          I found that song on youtube, which, I admit, isn t a rigorous reference source.  However, this song is shown under Johnson s discography on redhotjazz.com:
          Message 4 of 5 , Jul 31, 2009
            I found that song on youtube, which, I admit, isn't a rigorous reference source.  However, this song is shown under Johnson's discography on redhotjazz.com: Paramount 12700-B, 9/1928.

            You can hear it there or at youtube, which is easier for me as I don't have 'Real" set up.

            Cannon did play the five string, and he at times used a knife as a slide, as on "Poor Boy, Long Way From Home.".

            ChukcB 




            ________________________________
            From: Patrice Champarou <patrice.champarou@...>
            To: RedHotJazz@yahoogroups.com
            Sent: Friday, July 31, 2009 6:17:17 PM
            Subject: Re: [RedHotJazz] Blues Banjo

             
            Post-scriptum :

            > While a lot of Cannon's recording are not really blues, his "Springdale
            > Blues"
            > is, as is Jackson's "Good Doing Papa Blues."

            I am afraid there is some confusion, since as far as I know Charlie Jackson
            never recorded that number. It is the title of an unissued recording by
            Isaiah Nettles a.k.a. the Mississippi Moaner, which - obviously - no-one has
            heard.

            The songs performed by Papa Charlie on guitar are the following :
            Texas blues (1925)
            Jackson's Blues (1926)
            Up The Way Bound (1926)
            but to be honest, according to B&GR there was every time another take which
            he accompanied on his usual 6-string banjo. Which I'll enjoy checking
            tomorrow.

            P.







            [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
          • Patrice Champarou
            ... From: Charles Bihun To: Sent: Saturday, August 01, 2009 1:25 AM Subject: Re: [RedHotJazz] Blues Banjo
            Message 5 of 5 , Aug 1, 2009
              ----- Original Message -----
              From: "Charles Bihun" <csintala79@...>
              To: <RedHotJazz@yahoogroups.com>
              Sent: Saturday, August 01, 2009 1:25 AM
              Subject: Re: [RedHotJazz] Blues Banjo


              > I found that song on youtube, which, I admit, isn't a rigorous reference
              > source. However, t
              > his song is shown under Johnson's discography on redhotjazz.com: Paramount
              > 12700-B, 9/1928.

              Oops! *I* made the mistake this time, thinking I was reading Good Doin Daddy
              ;-)
              This is a very typical Jackson blues song, he adopted the same melody and
              accompaniment on many other ones.

              > Cannon did play the five string, and he at times used a knife as a slide,
              > as on "Poor Boy, Long Way From Home."

              I had mentioned this, but I tend to believe it was a one-time studio request
              or, er... experiment, not very convincing.

              ChukcB
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